The only thing better than a total solar eclipse? Pro diver Helena Merten *eclipsing* the eclipse.
The clock is ticking; 21-year-old Australian Helena Merten has 58 seconds and just one chance at executing a perfect dive from a 66-foot-high platform into a 30,000-gallon water tank. There aren't any judges or competitors—just her, photographer Dustin Snipes, and what's being called the eclipse of the century. (In case you somehow missed it, a rare total solar eclipse happened today.)
Merten, who's been cliff diving for about four years now, is no stranger to the hot seat. She got her start in diving when, after years of gymnastics and acrobatics training, she started working for a water show (the House of Dancing Water in Macau, known as the "Vegas of China"). Now, she's one of the top cliff divers in the world, placing fourth at the 2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
Today, she made a pit-stop in McMinnville, OR (a small city southwest of Portland that lies in the path of the total solar eclipse) to attempt a legendary jump along with four male divers before heading to Hell's Gate Cliffs in Texas for this year's World Series.
"It's something I find fascinating just as a normal spectator, but to be able to dive during it? I feel very privileged," she says of the eclipse. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime dive."
Because her dive of choice for the eclipse shoot is more about being in a photogenic position, it's not one of her more technical moves, so she admits that she wasn't that nervous. However, the shallow pool (only 10 feet deep) required a bit of practice, as she says she's actually never dived into water that shallow before.
While Merten has practice diving in insanely lit environments (the Macau show was full of theatrical spotlights) and is used to navigating the sun in her eyes, the eclipse dive was shockingly dark. The eclipse may have happened at 10 a.m. PDT, but once the moon slid across the sun, the divers were plunging into total darkness. Shallow and pitch black? Yikes!
"The solar eclipse was beyond incredible," says Merten. "The atmosphere was eerie. The dive was challenging, but it was the most fulfilling diving experience I have ever had."
And that's saying a lot since Merten jumps off cliffs for a living. Aside from the straightforward cool factor that comes with diving off cliffs, there's a surprising set of challenges accompanying this extreme sport that isn't in traditional high diving: "When you're diving inside, there's no wind and the weather's always the same," says Merten. "When you're balancing on just your toes on the edge of the cliff or standing backward or even in a handstand and a big gust of wind comes, it's really a big challenge." (Speaking of insane sports, have you heard of the Urban Fitness League?) And even if you choose the correct starting location and make it safely off, you still have to worry about waves. "You jump off the cliff and you're about to land and suddenly the water drops [three feet]," she explains.
But it's all worth it: "I trained for a long time in pools before competition and it's the same every day," she says. "Diving off cliffs is such a cool, different experience—especially when you're diving right off the face of the cliff and not from a platform."
Now that she's nailed the eclipse dive, Merten's off to dive in the World Series where she hopes to make it onto the podium. Whatever happens, one thing's for sure: Merten's the female eclipse diving MVP.